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IN SHORT: The buzz was better than the movie. [Rated [R], 87 minutes]
ADDENDUM 10/31/99: This review is of the film release. The video includes more background material, making it a more substantial flick.
No comparison is made to Source Material, and that includes the Blair Witch Project website, which was composed after the fact by people far more creative than the actors who improvised the entire movie.
Cranky has written before of how those of us who make our living reviewing movies are a small, compact community, who share the buzz on "small" or independent flicks that may otherwise be overlooked. Over the last six months there's been major buzz about a no-name flick -- that means no star actors or production folk. It's no reflection on talent -- called The Blair Witch Project. Word was this documentary style horror flick was tremendous. It was said to be the scariest movie ever made, which explains the packed house in the screening room when we got our first look at the flick this past June.
The story concept was great: Three budding filmmakers, Heather Donahue (director), Michael Williams (sound), and Joshua Leonard (camera) are shooting a documentary on an 18th century "witch" named Elly Dedward when they vanish forever into a Maryland woods. A year later, their film and tape is found and is edited into a coherent form by the team of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. It reveals the final eight days; the physical deterioration and psychological self-destruction of the group as they find themselves hunted by an unknown entity.
As I said, sounds good on paper. What begins well soon becomes a stunning bore. When the screening was done, everyone in the packed house looked around, all expressing the same opinion: "So?" [That the filmmakers spent $25,000 and reaped a reported cool million after the film student mentality critics at Sundance saw it, well, good for them].
The problem is, the history of the "Blair Witch" isn't well documented in the film. The "filmmakers" spend more time focussing on a 1940s child killer who stalked the town and they don't make a strong link between that "possession" (if that's what it was) and others that have occurred over the past two centuries. Worse, they don't act like any filmmakers I've worked with -- and I have worked on many crews, from studio flicks to lower than dirt low budget post college work indie flicks.
Using a "documentary" format, the "filmmakers" interview residents of the town of Burkittsville (formerly Blair) about what they know of the witch or the killer in the first half of the film. That is very entertaining. The crew of three then head into the woods, get lost, and are terrorized by something. I'll not give most of that away, 'cuz the films concept and conceit is that they won't tell you either. Quickly, the Blair Witch Project film begins to feel like something that was made up on the spot.
Which it was. Myrick and Sanchez gave the three actors film and video equipment to shoot with and story notes from which they were then left to improvise. The net result are scenes that sometimes look totally natural, and sometimes look like a bunch of scenery chewing. "Mike" goes through mood swings that a) make you wish he had brought a Valium drip with him and b) detract from the better than usual improv job done by "Heather" and "Josh". That pair are more consistent in their characterizations but the overall picture just isn't scary.
No one ever implied that BWP was a slice 'n' dice flick. If that's what you expect in your scareflicks, you won't like this. This is one of the few times that the website is a vital resource, and more entertaining, than the film. There's a tremendous amount of material documenting the "witch" or the alleged possessions (there are more than one). Having the background details down cold; a couple of hours spent perusing the superior website will help fill in the gaps and may raise the tension levels high enough that you get a fright or two. Cranky got the material just before his screening, and knowing the details only pointed out the failure of the improvisations.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Blair Witch Project, he would have paid...
and, as we used to say in school, an "A" for effort. The sum of the parts do not make for an enthralling whole.
To drive home how strong the buzz was, as soon as this review was made "live" Cranky started to get email calling him stupid (and worse). Considering that the film had not been released to the general public at the time, which would you consider to be the greater stupidity -- expressing an opinion based on actually seeing the movie, or assuming that rumor is more accurate than an opinion based on actually seeing the movie? The rest of the critics have been discussing this flick for weeks. Those that hang at festivals, the film student mentality crits (as I've often referred to 'em) consider the film wonderful and daring and inventive. The opinion of those of us who write for people who pay cash for their tickets, is completely opposite. If you want to try to discuss differences in opinions, use the message boards. If you want to call me an ignorant git, without defending your reasoning, don't expect a response. That means don't tell me to look at the website. I have. We don't compare to Source Material. Period.
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